The night we first kissed, Andrew and I were at a crowded bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The walls were painted maroon, and it was filled with college kids drinking craft beer out of stemmed glasses. Andrew had gotten a babysitter for his 3½-year-old daughter, Amaia. It was the first time he’d done so since his wife had died several months earlier. We sat on stools, opposite a tall mahogany table, and leaned toward each other. I had driven from Brooklyn, at his encouragement, so that we could talk in person.
I’d met Andrew, his wife, and their daughter for the first time the previous winter, through my then-boyfriend. Amaia had just turned 3 and had arresting blue eyes and the sweetest lilt in her voice. Within minutes of my meeting her, she’d climbed into my lap, handed me a copy of One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, and demanded that I read to her. I was instantly taken with her.
Andrew and I had gotten to know each other later, over email, after his wife had passed away. I sent Amaia a care package, and Andrew had responded with a thank-you note, which got lost in the mail for two months. By the time I found it—a small purple envelope on the floor of my apartment building—my boyfriend and I had broken up. I had also recently lost my grandparents, and the correspondence began as meditations on grief and Andrew and Amaia’s unspeakable loss. Sometimes I’d send him book recommendations, or we’d talk about how frustratingly nonlinear mourning could be. Gradually, the emails morphed into a daily correspondence. I began to share the difficulties of my day as a social worker, the heartbreak when a client of mine was sentenced to a decade in prison. He talked about his graduate studies and how Amaia’s delight and excitement about anything—gummy bears, her doll Henry, a pretend cellphone—was a shot of light through his sorrow. I began to check my inbox compulsively. Sometimes I’d open his emails and read them backward, starting down at the very bottom, an attempt to mitigate my own disappointment when they came to the end.
After some months of emailing, I convinced a friend to visit Boston with me. We stayed with her family for the weekend, and I met Andrew and Amaia in Cambridge for lunch. Amaia greeted me at the door. She was exuberant, dressed in red-and-white-striped leggings, with stickers of ice cream cones on her cheeks. “Hi Kate!” She elongated my name so that it was two syllables and then led me around her apartment like a jovial little real estate agent. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she asked, and she showed me her bedroom. She pointed to the stuffed animals that crowded her bed and then to a picture of her as a toddler, being held by her mother. “Wasn’t I cute?” she asked. She introduced me to her two dogs, whom she picked up lovingly and cradled against her chest. “These are my Maltese,” she said.
We ate dumplings on Mass Ave., and Andrew and I tried to thread a conversation beneath Amaia’s stream-of-consciousness exclamations. There is a girl named Sofia in my class! Isabela’s mom has a baby in her belly! I want a cup of water! A different cup! Another straw! That kid is eating chicken and broccoli!
Later, when it was time for Amaia to nap, I hugged both of them goodbye. The drive back to New York took six hours, long enough for me to analyze every aspect of my interactions with Andrew. There was a moment right before I pulled out of his driveway that he stopped me and said I’d forgotten something. It was an empty blue gift bag from CVS that clearly I didn’t need. That had to mean something, I asked my friend, right?
A couple of weeks passed and our communication shifted from email to text to phone calls before bed. I visited again. That was the night we sat at the bar in Cambridge, and I wrapped my fingers around a glass of whiskey. “This feels crazy,” I said, and I stared at his hands, the silver wedding band he wore on his finger. To start dating long distance while he was still in the early months of navigating his loss and newly single parenthood—it was hard to fathom.
We couldn’t deny there was a current between us. Just making eye contact with him made me feel dizzy with affection. “We’ll start slow,” he said, “and see where it takes us.” We walked back to his apartment just before midnight. It was late October and chilly. I snuck my hand in the pocket of his sweatshirt.
At the door to his apartment, where the babysitter sat inside watching Netflix, we kissed and I felt it before I thought it: Something big is happening. I took a taxi back to a friend’s house and collapsed into bed, fully dressed.
I went back to their apartment the next morning. Andrew had just made French toast and was serving it to Amaia. “Do you want to watch me pour my own syrup?” she asked. I did! She spilled it all over her plate and onto the table, and laughed. We went to the neighbors’ house and sat on the porch while Amaia carved pumpkins with their two children. They handed me and Andrew mugs of coffee, and the kids marveled at the slimy insides of the pumpkins, rubbing the seeds between their fingers. Andrew smiled and brushed his hand against my leg. It was an exquisite fall day, brisk and sunny. Leaves scattered on the sidewalk, and I felt a swell of nausea, and then my heart started to beat rapidly—precursors, I knew, to a surge of panic. I sat quietly and tried to resist, but after a few minutes I politely excused myself and went inside to use the bathroom. I sat on top of the closed toilet seat and took slow, deliberate breaths. You’re fine, you’re fine, you’re fine. Each time the adrenaline seemed to subside, it spiked again. Eventually, I went back to the porch and told them I had to leave, my plans had changed and I needed to be back in New York by late afternoon.
The moment I got into my car, the panic abated. I spent the next several hours trying to figure out what had happened. “We had a great weekend,” I said to my cousin over the phone. “I have no idea what I have to feel anxious about.” But she laughed, and later it seemed obvious. Andrew and I had only kissed, but I knew that if I wanted to have a relationship with him, with them, my life would have to look radically different. I had just turned 31, and I had never had a boyfriend who had asked much of me. My time was my own: to have dinner with my friends, to stay inside on a sunny afternoon and read, or to go to an overpriced exercise class after work. Andrew’s life was shaped by play dates and naps and circus class and baking group, by avoiding meltdowns and squeezing in time for a run. And that was just the regular, quotidian stuff, not taking into account the trauma they were contending with or what it meant to care for a child who had just lost her mother.
But I kept visiting. I felt the thrill of Amaia’s reaction to whatever I bought for her when I came to see them: stickers that smelled like pizza or cupcakes, glow-in-the-dark temporary tattoos, a plastic trumpet. We walked the dogs around the neighborhood, and Amaia greeted neighbors like she was the mayor making rounds—Morning, hope you have a good day! How’s your day going so far? At night, Andrew turned into an emcee and beatboxed so that Amaia could dance. She shrieked with excitement in her footie pajamas and hopped around in circles, twisting and shaking her legs. Later, I sat cross-legged on the rug in her bedroom, while she and her dad curled up in the rocking chair and read a story. The scene was so idyllic my chest felt like it would crack open. And yet there was also the absence of her mother—Andrew’s wife –who was simultaneously missing and everywhere.
She was all over the apartment, her belongings like artifacts of a different life: her coconut-scented shampoo in the shower, her handwriting on the whiteboard calendar in the kitchen, a pair of black leather boots by the front door. There were the wedding photographs throughout the home, one a solemn and beautiful black-and-white portrait, fixed behind the dining room table. On the side of the refrigerator, a picture of Amaia and her mom looking up at the camera with the same impatient and knowing stare, eager to go back to reading.
One night, after Amaia had gone to bed and Andrew was asleep beside me, I lay awake on the futon. Remnants from the day were scattered around the living room: crayons and a superman costume, magnetic tiles strewn on the carpet. My life felt inexplicably full, and I was awash in gratitude. And then I imagined his late wife walking into the apartment, indignant and demanding I leave. Who did I think I was bounding into her home, eating dinner off of her plates, sleeping with her husband, giving her daughter a bath?
There was an undercurrent of grief in the home, and I was woozy with love. It felt, in moments, perverse and shameful. But it was also true that in the wake of their loss, something else, tiny and fragile, was being nurtured.
For the next several months, I kept my visits to Cambridge short because if I stayed past 36 hours I would panic again. Going to the playground and standing beside Andrew as he pushed Amaia on the swings, I felt blissful until I didn’t, until my stomach churned and my thoughts spun. Who was I, and what was I doing with them? When I picked Amaia up from a play date or attended a Seder where her mother’s close friend was present, I could only see myself through the friend’s skeptical eyes. As I blew on a matzah ball, trying to cool it down for her, I feared I was performing motherhood in a way that others would view as fundamentally inauthentic. It felt both natural—I didn’t want her to burn her tongue—and also manufactured—wasn’t that a thing that mothers were supposed to do? Once, at a drugstore, I instinctively bought Amaia a purple electric toothbrush, decorated with little figures. But then I hesitated before giving it to her. I texted Andrew, wondering if it was too maternal a gift. Something as utilitarian as a toothbrush was not something your dad’s fun friend brings you as a treat.
I kept visiting, and some of the anxiety subsided. But I also didn’t really have to do the hard stuff—I could quietly turn away during the meltdowns, sit in the living room and read on my phone, while Andrew was managing a tantrum. On the way home from the park one afternoon, Amaia stopped walking and demanded that her dad get her apple cider, immediately. Immediately! She would not move until she got it. Eventually Andrew picked her up and carried her back to the apartment screaming. He was exhausted and frustrated. I was struck by her new use of the word immediately! I found it adorable, but mostly because it wasn’t my problem. Sometimes on the train rides back to Brooklyn, I’d feel the palpable relief of having time to myself, catching up on sleep I’d missed over the weekend, or just sitting in the quiet.
A year after we’d first started dating, Andrew and Amaia came to visit me. Andrew had plans on his own to see a play that evening. It was my first time doing dinner and bedtime without him. The three of us spent the day walking around Dumbo and rode the carousel several times. By late afternoon, just before Andrew headed into the city, I started to feel queasy. Amaia and I took the train back to my neighborhood, and I was overcome with nausea. I was certain I was going to throw up, and then I was spiraling; how could I care for Amaia if I was sick? Who would make her dinner? How would she get to bed? We got back to the apartment, and I realized we were locked out. Amaia was starving, and I was panicked. We went to the deli across the street, and Amaia slurped a pouch of yogurt, while we waited for a friend to let us in.
“That was a little scary,” Amaia said, before getting into bed. “You were very brave,” I told her and kissed her goodnight. And then I poured myself a glass of whiskey and leaned against the kitchen counter and cried. I was exhausted and defeated, and I wondered if maybe I wasn’t cut out to be responsible for a child.
I’d spent so much time with friends and their children, marveling at their tiny newborn hands or beatific toddler smiles. I’d never questioned my desire to be a parent. For years I felt a magnetic pull toward babies on the street or the subway; my insides lit up at the sight of them. I couldn’t imagine loving Amaia more than I did, but I also feared I would continue to fall short, and I worried that my anxiety was fundamentally incompatible with parenthood. What if my panic attacks were trying to alert me to something—that maybe this wasn’t right?
But we hurtled forward, and some days I felt myself turning into something like a parent. There was the day Amaia lost her first tooth; I was on the subway when I received a picture of her beautiful, gummy smile. I was elated and breathless looking around the train, wishing there was someone I could show. Or the first time I sat with her as a tantrum subsided, how she held onto me and wept, her hair damp with sweat. How she started requesting me at bedtime, wanting to hear stories from when I was a little girl. There was the time she said, “I hope you stay forever,” after I’d arrived for the weekend, and I felt something inside of me irrevocably expanding.
I still craved that solitary time on the train ride home, but after an hour of reading or responding to emails, I’d find myself just looking at pictures of her or watching videos of her dancing, the way her eyes lit up when the music started.
Andrew and I knew that a long-distance relationship wasn’t sustainable and early on talked about one of us moving. For many months we were at an impasse, and our relationship felt doomed, but being a graduate student, Andrew had some flexibility, and they decided to spend the summer in Brooklyn.
The first few days of living in the same place were thrilling. There was something so luxurious about the lack of urgency, when urgency had once been a marker of our time together. But we were also in the midst of big transitions. There was Andrew’s grief, which swelled up periodically and kept me at a subtle distance. Sometimes when I felt his focus drift away, I wondered if he was thinking about his first life—the one he so lovingly built, only to have it decimated. There were periods, early on, where I waited for him to break up with me. I feared our relationship was merely a balm for his suffering, a distraction from his sadness, which swelled up more acutely around the anniversary of his wife’s death. I was mindful about giving him space around that time, and we didn’t see each other for several weeks before and afterward. I often felt riddled with anxiety, certain he was going to realize it was too soon.
And the disruption of Amaia’s routine was hard; she missed her friends in Cambridge and sitting on her porch, chatting with neighbors down the street, and she channeled her distress in challenging ways. I tried to adjust to being a more full-time caregiver and struggled when I was the recipient of her outrage after I accidentally purchased the white mac ’n’ cheese instead of the orange. I also didn’t know how painful it would be to drop her at camp in the mornings when she was tearfully pleading with me to stay. Nor was I expecting how excited I’d be to see her at the end of each day—so eager that sometimes I snuck out of exercise class a couple of minutes early while everyone else was still stretching. As the summer ended, Andrew and I decided they would stay in Brooklyn for good.
Most of my friends had become parents in an instant—their lives shockingly transformed after a birth. But for me, there was no singular moment when I felt myself suddenly embody the parent role. My relationship with Amaia is still changing every day. At some point caring for her stopped feeling performative, and just was. I think often of that Hemingway quote, it happened “gradually and then suddenly.” There are moments when I feel completely immersed in parenthood, delicately scraping dirt from her toenails or cupping chewed-up, rejected food in my palm. I feel stung when people say things like, “You’ll understand when you have your own children.” But other times, when I’m desperately coercing Amaia into finishing her broccoli, or managing a meltdown because she dropped a very special furry pen into a puddle on the sidewalk, I’m completely overwhelmed. Some days I feel so exhausted, like I’ve been thrust into something I’m totally unprepared for—if not emotionally, then at least logistically. In these moments, I fear that Amaia is being cheated and I wonder if a biological parent—or at the very least a more experienced one—would provide a well of patience or wisdom that I do not.
But we’re working through it. Some mornings I bring Amaia to school, and I hesitate for a moment before signing my name on the parent drop-off sheet. I am not her parent, I think often, but I’m not not her parent. People often mistake me for Amaia’s mother, and sometimes she corrects them, sometimes she doesn’t. Navigating language is tricky for both of us; terminology can be useful, but labels can also feel burdensome and reductive. Stepmom doesn’t feel quite right, but neither does dad’s girlfriend. I imagine that when Amaia gets older, we’ll have more nuanced and deliberate conversations about my role and also about her mother, who loved her bottomlessly.
A few weeks ago I picked Amaia up from after-school. She had orange marker smeared on her face and was holding a balloon that she had decorated to look like a cat. “Kate!” she said. “I was at the library today, and I saw a book about a family that is just like ours.”
“No way!” I said. “Let’s read it together.” We hugged, and she handed me the balloon.
At home, I searched various permutations of loss of a parent or parent’s new partner, but I couldn’t find the book. A family like ours. I wondered what she meant by this, or what about it had resonated with her, but maybe it didn’t matter. Amaia had already forgotten about it and was dancing around the living room, hopping on one foot and swinging her arms into the air.